National parks and sites in our backyard

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Glenda C. Booth

The waterfalls at Great Falls National Park, in Great Falls, Va., are part of the Potomac River. The park also includes part of the C&O Canal, which stretches from Georgetown to western Maryland.
Photo © NPS

The Baltimore/Washington corridor is dotted with historic sites and parks managed by the National Park Service — from Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key penned our national anthem, to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Civil War battlefields in Manassas, Virginia.

The National Park Service (NPS) manages 411 parks, natural areas, historic sites, monuments, battlefields, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails covering over 84 million acres spread throughout every state. The smallest park is .02 acres; the largest, 13.2 million.

Ken Burns saluted our national parks in film, noting what makes them unique:  “For the first time in human history, land was set aside, not for the rich, but for everyone and for all time.”

In 1916, Congress created the NPS to manage the country’s special places “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Many parks are celebrating the service’s 100th anniversary this year.

Here are a few of the gems just a short drive away:

Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and Ft. McHenry

In the 19th century, the Chesapeake Bay was a center of maritime-related commerce, shipbuilding and government, and so  a key target of the British military. Baltimore was famous for its pirates, including legal privateers licensed to attack the enemy in their private vessels.

War of 1812 reenactors fire a cannon at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. The fort’s flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. The poem, set to a popular English melody, was adopted as our national anthem in 1931.
Photo © NPS

The Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail highlights several historic sites of the War of 1812 and many more historic sites around the Bay. A 560-mile land and water route, the trail connects sites in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and traces American and British troop movements throughout the Chesapeake region.

The “lynchpin” of the trail, in the heart of Baltimore, is the star-shaped Fort McHenry — birthplace of the national anthem and scene of the Battle for Baltimore.

Marylander Francis Scott Key, aboard a ship eight miles away, watched the British bombard the fort continually for 25 hours. Finally, the Brits withdrew, leaving the fort standing, and Key saw that the flag was still there! He scribbled out a poem that became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

Today, visitors learn the story from videos, exhibits and ranger talks. The Fort McHenry Guard puts on drill, musket and artillery demonstrations in the summer.

The entry fee is $10 for adults. Children 15 and younger visit for free.

Baltimore-Washington Parkway

Between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the 29-mile, four-lane Baltimore-Washington Parkway is a national park connecting the two cities. NPS manages 19 miles starting at Fort Meade and going south. A major commuter route, the parkway passes through woodlands that block views of dense suburban development on both sides.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

George Washington envisioned a canal to transport raw materials from the west to Washington. Only part of it was completed before railroads displaced it. Today a historic monument, the C&O Canal stretches 184.5 miles along the Potomac River’s eastern shore from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

Visitors can study locks, lock houses, aqueducts, bridges, culverts, dams and weirs — all the work of talented stonemasons of the day. Its environs abound with wildlife, wildflowers and woodlands, and it is a popular walking and biking path, especially the stretch below Great Falls Tavern.

Visiting Great Falls is a main attraction of the canals. The park has a flat $10 entry fee for a vehicle; $5 per person if arriving via bike, motorcycle or on foot. An unlimited annual pass is also available for $30.

Wolf Trap Park for the Performing Arts

Wolf Trap National Park, located in Vienna, Va., is the only U.S. national park dedicated to the performing arts.

Its stage is front and center for performances, this summer featuring the likes of Garrison Keillor, Ricky Martin, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, as well as opera, dance and more.

And there is more, outside. Performers often walk the 65 acres of undeveloped woodlands, streams and wetlands, as well as the three-mile hiking trail, to calm pre-performance jitters.

There is no charge to visit Wolf Trap Park itself. Ticket fees vary depending on the show and seating.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

“What is past is prologue,” said Jon James, the battlefield’s superintendent, borrowing a quote from Shakespeare. James has dedicated his NPS career to preserving history, and now at Manassas National Battlefield, where Union and Confederate armies engaged twice in fierce battles recounted in the park’s film, “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

Today’s visitors try to picture soldiers clashing on the park’s 4,000 acres of open fields, forests and gently rolling hills. But there’s more than war stories here. Fifty-four species of birds breed in the park. Spotting flowers springing from empty ammunition boxes in 1865, war correspondent Frank Leslie wrote, “Nature covers even the battlegrounds with verdure and bloom.” Nature does today, too.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

NPS is one of the federal government’s lead agencies for preserving history, from prehistoric petroglyphs out west, to Ellis Island in New York, where 12 million immigrants came to America between 1892 and 1924, to memorials honoring major historic figures.

 The first memorial to honor an African American on or near the National Mall is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in West Potomac Park.

Dedicated in 2011 on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, the park features a 30-foot sculpture of a reflective King, depicted as if emerging from a mountain, referencing his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Sculpted by Master Lei Yixin, the granite sculpture has several parts, including the Mountain of Despair and a Stone of Hope. The many entrances symbolize democracy’s openness.

To learn more about these and the other national parks dotting this region, go to the National Park Service’s website,, where you can search by park name or by state.